In an interview earlier this year, Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt proclaimed that their move to esteemed US indie rock institution Matador Records had little to do with any band currently on the label or any pull toward the label’s history and had a lot more to do with practical considerations of creative control. Even when they were just beginning to make the climb from Copenhagen’s burgeoning punk scene aboard the Escho records wagon, their music seemed to exist in some strange temporal vacuum. Though their clenched fist approach to noisy post-punk is well worn in idea, the way it played out across the blistering 24 minutes of their debut album, New Brigade, recalled actual tangible isolation. Catharsis by way of wiry guitar lines and garbled barked vocals straight from Rønnenfelt’s dark parts. It proved that a quartet of 18 and 19 year olds was already proficient as musicians and the songwriting underlying all that shattered glass showed a real literacy for the emotions of, as Rønnenfelt has put it, the “clenched fist.” Anxiety, fury and pure terror run through that record, as accomplished and ultimately real as any of their forebears.
So why should they feel any particular affinity to Matador’s past then? I mean, your FIDLARs, your Wavves, your Ty Segalls – every band with pseudo-indie credibility that retains even the most tenuous of ties to punk communities maintains this unabashed retro embrace. Some do it pretty damn well, but Iceage, in their geographic and sonic seclusion, sound single minded in their pursuit of absolute purity of emotion. So solemn is this pursuit that the absolute terror of the records and the songwriting captured within tends to overshadow any integration of past punk forms. Iceage’s often harrowing blend of apocalyptic post-punk shows shades of Wire bled through layers of contemporary Copenhagen malaise, but those shades are so deeply embedded in what Iceage is ultimately attempting to accomplish on You’re Nothing that playing spot-the-influence feels like you’re missing the point.
Rønnenfelt and co. are far too busy being songwriters to have their work reduced by the nostalgic undertones of modern punk music. “Ecstasy” opens with a fury of fuzzed out guitars, but rather than have the band break out into blast beats, the verse stews in a slog of hi hats that underpins Rønnenfelt’s all-caps tirades before collapsing into the drunken stomp of the chorus’ “Pressure! Pressure! Oh god no!” exclamations. It’s the sound of pure anguish and anxiety atop a foreboding kick drum and the distant clatter of cymbals. From there, the band launches into more familiar territory on lead single “Coalition” and “Burning Hand,” but where New Brigade engaged in the anti-social misanthropy of misguided youth, You’re Nothing uses these more traditional forms for impressionistic streaks and broken images, a fractured sort of songwriting that’s underscored by Rønnenfelt’s heavy accent. That brief description there ignores “Interlude” which represents the most impressive addition to Iceage’s songwriting repetoire. Through the doom-y dirge there and the looming piano chords on “Morals,” the band has expanded their sonic palette beyond driving guitars and cymbal flurries to hint at those aforementioned unclenched emotions. The interlude eventually steps aside in favor of the more standard guitar exercises of “Burning Hand” and “In Haze,” but while “Morals” intro gives way to a more boisterous chorus the track still manages to maintain its dampened emotional intent. Rønnenfelt’s tone is still accusatory, but it’s bleary eyed and delirious rather than New Brigade’s insistent ire.
That tone carries through to the album-closing title track, which uses its sub-two-minute runtime to unleash some more pit-clearing drum fury underneath more of Rønnenfelt’s anguished cries. Throughout the tumult of the record’s 25 minutes the band makes wild turns and dramatic shifts, stopping and starting with the dynamic power of a band far beyond their early 20s, but they hold onto this shred of dramatic emotive power. This time around, Rønnenfelt’s growls have a tinge of sincerity and truth that the band’s debut didn’t. You could certainly praise You’re Nothing’s success as a descendent cause of a group of young dudes becoming tighter and ultimately the result of more muscular production (both of these things are certainly true of this record), but the success of Iceage’s sophomore effort lies in the newfound earnestness of Rønnenfelt’s lyrics and vocal performance. This time around, he means it, and not just in the way that he’s going to splatter blood on you at a show. Iceage mine the clangorous middle ground between traditional punk structures and the often sterile world of Joy Division-indebted post-punk, but they transcend both of those genres, just by meaning what they say.